The SWISH Report (20)

A year of turbulence across a wide arc from AfPak to the Arab world, from Somalia to Nigeria, poses key questions to al-Qaida. The movement again commissions a report from its favoured consultancy, to which openDemocracy has exclusive access.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 January 2012

A report from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics to the al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell (SPC) on the implications of recent events.

In mid-2011, you commissioned us to undertake an initial assessment of the impact of the Arab awakening on your movement. Thank you for now inviting us to offer a follow-up analysis (see "The SWISH Report [19]", 30 June 2011).

It must be said that we continue to be surprised to receive a further commission from you, given our view of your long-term prospects expressed in earlier reports. To cite but one past judgment:

"[You] have no chance of achieving your own ideological-strategic aim of an Islamist caliphate, which in any case rests on a false representation of Islam. However, we do not expect you to change" (see “The SWISH Report [17]”, 1 January 2011).

At the same time, we understand that you are seeking additional analysis principally because our previous report on your prospects was more positive than you had expected, and that you now wish to know whether this relative optimism on your behalf is still justified.

You will recall the main conclusions of this last report:

* that the Arab awakening might well fail, leaving a deep sense of bitterness across the region and enabling you to express your radical interpretation of Islam as the only appropriate way forward

* that the United States would maintain a substantial military presence in Iraq, which would be of value to you

* that there was little prospect of a lasting solution to the Palestinian predicament, also advantageous to you

* that overt and covert US involvement in Pakistan would increase, further inflaming anti-American sentiment in the country

* that the killing of Osama bin Laden was of symbolic but limited significance, since he had become peripheral to your leadership and his death was more relevant to a US domestic audience than to your movement.

The current landscape

In light of the foregoing, it is useful to examine developments in the second half of 2011 in terms of their relevance to your core aims.

The Arab awakening has become singularly messy in a manner which does your movement no harm. Tunisia is experiencing a largely peaceful transition towards wider political participation, but Egypt is far more important and the military elite there is determined to maintain power in some form. If this drive succeeds, it will be at the cost of considerable opposition which will enhance the prospects for your more radical interpretation of Islamic governance.

Libya saw regime change through foreign intervention, whose outcomes (unforeseen by its architects) have included greater influence for radical Islamic factions. In our view this should have been no surprise, given the role of Libyans in the wider jihadi campaign and the intensity with which the Gaddafi regime sought to suppress them. Libya, in relation to your more general support across the Maghreb, may well turn out to be an asset.

The current turmoil in Syria does not specifically help or hinder your movement but it looks increasingly likely that western interests will intervene, at least covertly, to promote regime termination. We think regime collapse is likely, though by no means certain, in the coming months. If it does happen then we anticipate further considerable violence and instability. Overall this would be useful to you.

In Yemen, Somalia and especially Nigeria there have been developments positive to your movement, notwithstanding that in all cases the direct connections are minimal. We would cite Nigeria, where radical groups have expanded their activities and look set to continue this trend, as the most significant example. Our Washington office informs us that this is causing considerable concern within the United States administration, to the extent that you may confidently expect increased US involvement in internal Nigerian security.

Yet the most important developments for you in the past six months have been in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan. In Iraq, the Obama administration has suffered a huge reversal in having to withdraw all its conventional military forces, even though its maintenance of private-security forces and a strong diplomatic presence will ensure that it retains some influence. The American retreat is unhelpful to your movement in the sense that it diminishes your narrative of occupation, but it also provides your associates in Iraq with an opportunity to increase their actions against the Nouri al-Maliki's regime. This is especially so when the regime's treatment of Iraq's Sunni minority - formerly powerful but now largely excluded from the levers of state and security - is a source of discontent and frustration.

In Afghanistan too, the Obama administration has concluded that the war is unwinnable and compromise inevitable. This means that the Taliban and other armed opposition groups will almost certainly have a role in Afghanistan's future governance. We would caution against any assumption that this might give you substantial direct influence or even a safe home-base; but it will certainly do you no harm

In Pakistan, your middle-ranks have suffered through US drone-attacks, especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. More recently, however, intense opposition in Pakistan to the casualties they inflict and their infringement of sovereignty has led to a reduction in the number of attacks, giving you some respite. We anticipate that Pakistan is likely to enter a phase of increased instability, disorder, and violence; its precise outcomes are unpredictable but it will offer useful opportunities for you.

The strategic choice

Across a wider canvas, and looking ahead, we would like to draw to your attention to three factors. The first is that, in broad terms, your movement as a variably structured entity is weaker than in 2010, partly because the Barack Obama administration has proved a less obvious and useful enemy than its predecesor. Much of your success in the eight years after 9/11 related to the intensity and violence of the US response. Obama moderated this and provided a less favourable environment for you, given that you have essentially been a reactive entity.

The second factor is somewhat at odds with the first. For what has also happened in the past two years is the spread of your ideas, not least in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and parts of north Africa. You have played a minimal role in this process, and in each case it may largely relate to local circumstances; yet it also arises indirectly from your activities over the past two decades. Put bluntly, your movement is weaker yet your ideas are not.

The third factor is the United States presidential election in November 2012. At the time of the last election campaign in 2008, we advised you strongly to declare your backing of Barack Obama's candidacy by describing him as a figure with whom you could do business. This, we believed, would damage Obama's credibility and do much to aid his Republican rival John McCain reach the White House and implement hawkish policies to your advantage.

In the event, you did not take our advice. Nonetheless, we would urge you to reconsider in the context of the approaching 2012 election. The level of disunity in the Republican Party means that there is a serious possibility that Obama could be re-elected. He would then have a period of perhaps two years in which he could substantially disengage from Afghanistan and even Pakistan, and might also foster progress on the Israel-Palestine issue. Both of these developments would be bad news for you and your movement.

We recognise that we are entering very uncertain times across the region, not least with the Arab awakening and the possibility of a war with Iran. But our remit is specifically concerned with your prospects. In this respect we would argue that the most useful action for you is to seek to affect the US presidential-election campaign in any way that makes a Republican-controlled White House more likely.


This is the twentieth report openDemocracy has published from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH). Fifteen have advised al-Qaida, two the British governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, one the United States state department, and one the incoming Barack Obama administration:

"The SWISH Report" (14 July 2004) – to al-Qaida:

"The immediate requirement…is therefore to aid, in any way within the framework of your core values, the survival of the Bush administration."

"The SWISH Report (2)" (13 January 2005) - to al-Qaida:

"You are… in the early stages of a decades-long confrontation, and early ‘success' should not in any way cause you to underestimate the problems that lie ahead."

"The SWISH Report (3)" (19 May 2005) – to the British government:

"We believe that disengagement from Iraq, more emphasis on post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan, and vigorous diplomacy in support of a two-state Israel/Palestine solution offer you the best short-term hope of avoiding further damage to your government's credibility in relation to the United States-led war on terror."

"The SWISH Report (4)" (1 September 2005) – to the United States state department:

"What we find quite extraordinary is the manner in which the full extent of your predicament in Iraq is still not appreciated by your political leadership."

"The SWISH Report (5)" (2 February 2006) – to al-Qaida:

"The greatest risk to your movement is that the opinions of some of the sharper analysts on both sides of the Atlantic begin to transcend those of the political and religious fundamentalists that currently dominate the scene. If that were to happen, then you could be in serious trouble within two or three years."

"The SWISH Report (6)" (7 September 2006) – to al-Qaida:

"(The) influence of your movement and your leader is considerable, but you are not in control of your own strategy; rather, you form just one part of a wider process that is as diffuse and unpredictable as it is potent. You could point to the United States failure to control its global war on terror and you would be correct to do so. You could then claim that it is your own movement that is setting the pace - but you would be wrong. The truly revealing development of recent months is that we have reached a point, five years after 9/11 where no one, but no one, is in control."

"The SWISH Report (7)" (7 December 2006) – to al-Qaida:

"In Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as across the wider middle east, it is the power and influence of the United States that is in crisis. Your movement may not be entirely coherent and the overall circumstances may be more complex than a few months ago, but it probably has greater potential for enhancement and further development than at any time in the past five years."

"The SWISH Report (8)" (16 May 2007) - to the British government:

"Radical changes in your policies in relation to Iraq and Israel are essential, together with a review of policy options for Afghanistan. More generally, you must start the process of reorientating political and security thinking towards the real long-term global challenges."

"The SWISH Report (9)" (29 November 2007) - to al-Qaida:

"Our broad conclusions are that your prospects are good. Developments in Iraq should not worry you; events in Afghanistan and Pakistan are markedly positive for you; and the work of your associates elsewhere, including north Africa, are a bonus.

We do have to confess to one concern that may surprise you...In a number of western countries the issue of global climate change is rising rapidly up the political agenda and one of the effects of this is to begin to make some analysts and opinion-formers question the western addiction to oil."

"The SWISH Report (10)" (29 February 2008) - to al-Qaida

"It is said that revolutions change merely the accents of the elites, and we fear that such would be the consequence of your movement coming to power. A lack of flexibility would lead to unbending pursuit of a false purity that would decay rapidly into a bitter autocracy, leading quite possibly to a counter-revolution.

If you really want to succeed then you have to engage in thinking that goes far beyond what appear to be the limits and flaws of your current analysis. We would be happy to assist, but we doubt that your leadership will be willing to allow us to do so. We therefore submit this as possibly our last report."

"The SWISH Report (11)" (11 September 2008) - to al-Qaida

"In any case, whatever his actual policies, we most certainly would expect under an Obama presidency a marked change in style towards a more listening, cooperative and multilaterally - engaged America. That must be of deep concern to you. A more ‘acceptable’ America in global terms is the last thing you want"

"The SWISH Report (12)" (6 November 2008) - to al-Qaida

"If the far enemy began to lose interest in your core region, then your movement really would be in trouble. We will explore this further in a later report; but at this stage, we would suggest that this could emerge as the most potent threat to your movement."

"The SWISH Report (13.1)" (8 December 2008) & "The SWISH Report (13.2)" (15 December 2008) - to the Obama Transition Team:

"(The) standing of the United States across the middle east and southwest Asia is much diminished and its military forces are mired in a dangerous and long-term conflict in Afghanistan that is exacerbated by major problems in Pakistan. We do not believe that victory has been achieved (or will soon be achieved) in Iraq; and we hold that the al-Qaida movement has been dispersed into a loose network that is and will remain extremely difficult to counter.

We are aware that our advice in three of the four major aspects covered in this report - Israel-Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan - is considerably more radical than anything you currently propose; but you have requested our advice and we have given it. We acknowledge that to accept it is much to ask of you, perhaps especially because it represents a very different outlook not just from the neo-conservative vision of a 'new American century' but from some of the assertive realists that you have already invited into your administration."

"The SWISH Report (14)" (9 April 2009) - to al-Qaida:

"(The) conflict in Iraq has enabled thousands of young paramilitaries to travel to Iraq to get combat experience against highly trained and well-armed US troops in an urban environment. This has proved a far better training-ground than was available to these fighters' predecessors who were engaged in fighting low-morale Soviet conscripts in rural Afghanistan in the 1980s. The impact and effectiveness of this new generation of paramilitaries on the future of your mission is difficult to predict, but our Washington office informs us that this outcome is clearly understood among thoughtful military analysts and is causing considerable concern."

"The SWISH Report (15)" (11 June 2009) - to al-Qaida:

"How, then, might you be viewed by, say, 2060? On present trends we anticipate that the international-security context will then be one of massive inequalities of wealth in an environmentally constrained global system in which transnational elites endeavour to maintain control in the face of desperate anti-elite movements and insurgencies. These will be diverse, both in their origins and in their ideologies and belief systems.

Some may well be modelled on your movement. In that event, your final destiny might prove to be seen as an early symptom of a global trend that goes far beyond one religious tradition, rather than a phenomenon of great note in its own right. Your movement will be a footnote to rather than the substance of history."

"The SWISH Report (16)" (21 January 2010) - to al-Qaida:

"We conclude by drawing a lesson from the experience of recent years: that you cannot achieve your ultimate aim of a radical caliphate founded on your particular understanding of Islam’s distant past, but that you will continue with the conflict even so. Your enemy, for now at least, will pursue its strategy in a manner that delivers real value to you. We suspect, though, that this enemy may be more intelligent than you believe. For you, hubris may turn out to be the greater threat."

"The SWISH Report (17)" (1 January 2011) - to al-Qaida:

"This combination of the movement’s inner character and the media-public impact of western policy means that in the coming years we expect to see many more attacks - notwithstanding that their often brutal nature can be counterproductive. Your movement will thus retain a decentred and dispersed vitality that arises primarily from the continuing effects of what your far enemy is doing."

"The SWISH Report (18)" (17 February 2011) - to al-Qaida:

"You are failing to lead or inspire a rapidly escalating revolutionary process, and as a result risk being seen as irrelevant. Even worse, as the regimes fall or shake you are in danger of losing a vital pillar of support for your cause: namely, the idea that people’s hatred of these regimes could only be channelled effectively by embracing your version of Islam. The revolts demonstrate that you are clearly not the only alternative - and this is very bad news indeed."

"The SWISH Report (19)" (30 June 2011) - to al-Qaida:

"We repeat that we do not believe you can succeed in your overall aims. Even so, our analysis forces us to conclude that you have more potential for transnational action and deeper regional involvement than at any time in the past five years. That may be a surprising judgment. In any event, it is based on developments that western states are conspicuously failing to recognise - which can be accounted as a vital fifth advantage for your movement."


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